Tuesday, February 28, 2012

ISS: Playing with fire

Astronaut Don Pettit at the SLICE equipment.

Up in the world's space outpost, astronauts and cosmonauts of Expedition 30 continue their research and experiments with living in space. Yesterday, astronaut Don Pettit worked on SLICE, the Structure and Liftoff In Combustion Experiment. SLICE allows astronauts and scientists to examine how flames behave in the microgravity of Earth orbit. The information gained by these tests will help engineers invent new equipment for fire safety which will benefit living in space, as well as potential benefits in fire control on Earth. This work will also help in pollution control and fuel efficiency in combustion engines.

Interviews with the press aboard the ISS. Don Pettit on left, Andre Kuipers on right.

During interviews with reporters, Flight Engineers Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers drank tea using specially designed glasses that allow humans to drink normally rather than have to sip liquid from plastic bags. After years of drinking from bags, this is a small but pretty cool step for living in space.

Other activities continued as normal aboard ISS: experiments with liquids and gasses in microgravity, computer and station maintenance, and astronaut physical workouts to control bone mass deterioration. Three of the crew practiced emergency evacuation procedures using the Soyuz TMA-22 spacecraft. Unloading continues from the Progress 46 supply spacecraft which docked at the station in January. Supplies from the module will continue to be unloaded, and eventually the module will be filled with trash, waste and garbage so it can be jettisoned later to burn up in the atmosphere.

What's next for ISS? On Wednesday the ISS will fire up its thrusters to boost its orbit a little bit. On March 9, the European Space Agency will launch another cargo spaceship (ATV-3) to the station. This craft has been nicknamed, "Edoardo Amaldi."

Friday, February 24, 2012

Blast off! Atlas 5 lifts Navy Satellite

Atlas lifts off from LC-41. Credit: SpaceFlight Now.

The MUOS 1 Mobile Communications Satellite was lifted into orbit Friday afternoon from Cape Canaveral at 3:15 pm MST. The US Navy will use the satellite to improve communications between ships and naval ground forces. MUOS 1 is built by Lockheed.

MUOS satellite graphic, credit Lockheed.

This was the 200th launch of the Centaur second-stage rocket system, which carries the satellites from the first stage Atlas rocket to an orbit before releasing the payload. Congratulations Centaur!

The Atlas 5 rocket is a joint project between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, under the organization of United Space Alliance. This rocket is under consideration of being man-rated to carry the new CST-100 crew capsule, currently being developed. This combination would be used to ferry astronauts to the ISS and back to Earth. It is also a possible launcher for the Dream Chaser, under development by Sierra Nevada Space Systems. The DreamChaser resembles a lifting-body design.

Dream Chaser- Atlas 5 configuration computer model. Credit Sierra Nevada Space Systems.

No doubt we'll be seeing more of the Atlas-5 in the competition for low-Earth-orbit capsules. In the meantime the Atlas 5 is very successful at delivering payloads into space. One of the spacecraft launched by an Atlas 5 is the New Horizon explorer, currently more than halfway to the dwarf planet Pluto! Another interesting payload is the Air Force's new X-37B unmanned robot shuttle, which is still on a mysterious mission in orbit.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Finally- Serious space debris plans

CleanSpaceOne plan. From the article on Parabolic Arc:

"That wasn't a laser blast... something hit us!" - paraphrasing a certain space smuggler.

Orbiting the Earth at present are tens of thousands of satellites, pieces of satellites and rockets, and fragments of space programs that have been placed there over the last fifty years. NASA uses radar to track 16,000+ items which could potentially cause damage to functioning satellites and spacecraft. Every now and then, even here on SpaceRubble we comment on the ISS needing to use thrusters to play "dodgeball" with a dangerous piece of debris. Lately, more and more space programs are considering the danger from all this wreckage in space.

Here come the Swiss! According to the article "Swiss Developing Way of Taking Out SPace Trash" on the website Parabolic Arc, the Swiss Space Agency has found a niche to master: ridding Earth orbit of non-functional satellites. CleanSpaceOne is a trash-intercepting satellite which will match orbits with a piece of debris, carefully approach and grapple with the object, then alter its orbit so the two will burn up in the atmosphere in re-entry.

At a cost of over 10 million Swiss Franks, each mission will be initially very expensive just to remove a dead satellite. Space Program planners will have to start including costs for eventual "disposal" at the end of their planned missions. At least this will be a start of the very necessary clean up of Earth orbit. Perhaps it will inspire others to find less expensive ways to deal with the problem. CleanSpaceOne is expected to be tested within the next three years.

Monday, February 20, 2012

50 YA - Friendship 7 Orbits the Earth!

Mercury Atlas 6 blasts off from LC-14.

After several disappointing weather delays and equipment failure postponements, NASA finally had a good day and launched the third mission of the Mercury program. The previous two missions launched Alan Shephard and Gus Grissom on short sub-orbital flights over the Atlantic. The Redstone rocket used on the previous flights were simply not powerful enough to place the Mercury capsule into an orbital flight, so the heavier Atlas ICBM was converted and "man-rated" to lift the astronauts into space.

Launch Complex 14 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The Mercury-Redstone missions had taken place from Launch Complex 5. With the more powerful Atlas rocket, operations were established at Launch Complex 14. Mission Control was performed from blast-proof domed bunkers near the pad. For this mission, radio ships at sea joined with radio stations around the world to maintain NASA's communications with the orbiting astronaut.

Astronaut Glenn enters the capsule. In the background is "pad leader" Gunther Wendt, overseeing launch tower operations.

John Glenn was a Marine officer who had flown combat missions in World War Two and the Korean War. As a test pilot, he had flown many types of aircraft and set speed records in the F-8U-1 Crusader jet. His backup for this mission was Scott Carpenter, a naval aviator who had served in the Korean War and flew surveillance missions near Soviet installations.

The ride to orbit was a bumpy one, but after the escape tower jettisoned with the booster engines the ride smoothed out. At last the capsule separated and Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth at 17, 544 miles per hour. Mission Control gave him the positive outlook that he was "go" for seven orbits at least.

In-flight picture of Glenn in the capsule.

During the flight, Glenn reported on his visual range of the Earth' surface, and at one moment was startled to see hundreds of tiny bight objects swarm around the capsule. He described them as like "fireflies" which the press picked up on immediately and speculated about possible life in space. The fireflies would be an object of investigation on the next Mercury flight. In the photo above, you can also see a curved mirror placed on Glenn's chest. This was included so that the camera in the capsule could also see the reflection of the capsule instrument panel. Also during the flight, there were problems with the temperature warming up too much in Glenn's spacesuit. He had to carefully maintain a balance between suit control settings and the temperature settings inside the capsule.

After an orbit, controllers determined a possible problem with the landing bag system. A computer light indicated that the landing cushion bag had deployed. If true, this could have cause problems with the positioning of the heat shield necessary for re-entry. Flight Director Chris Kraft consulted with flight engineers and they determined that Glenn should not eject the retro-rocket pack, attached to the heat shield with metal straps. Jettisoning the pack could cause the heat shield to slip off, and Glenn would be killed as the capsule experienced severe re-entry heat. Mercury pilot Wally Schirra, one of the astronauts yet to fly, was capsule communicator stationed at California, delivered the procedure plan to Glenn, who fully understood the possible danger.

Computer-generated model of Friendship 7 as it would have looked in orbit. The retro-engine pack with its straps visible on the left of the craft. Image by James R. Bassett.

During re-entry, the retro pack heated up and melted. Glowing pieces flew past the window, as Glenn exclaimed that "that's a real fireball outside." Glenn worried at times that he might be seeing pieces of the heat shield melting and falling away, but the heat shield held fine. As scientists would later determine, the landing bag indicator itself had been faulty, and there never was real danger to the craft. But the mission controllers did not know this at the time.

The parachutes opened as expected and Friendship 7 landed in the Atlantic Ocean. Glenn was about 40 miles from the expected landing zone. Not bad for America's first re-entry after orbit. The destroyer USS Noel quickly found glenn and hoisted him and the capsule out of the water.

Glenn would later receive a ticker-tape parade in New York and would received by President Kennedy and given a medal. But stepping out of the capsule onto the deck of the destroyer, his words were "It was hot in there!"

Normally I would have a bunch more NASA photos of the event in this blog. Unfortunately, the NASA image archives are compromised today, perhaps due to unusually high Internet traffic on this very memorable occasion. SO, I've decided to place a few pics from my trip to KSC last year and I'll post more pictures later.

Memorial plaque and sign at LC-14. As the sign points out, all the Mercury-Atlas flights took place from this complex.

At the Mercury Seven Sculpture. This location is located at the entrance road to the launch complex. That's me on the left, and my Uncle John Daymont, who patiently posed with me while the tour bus driver graciously took the picture. The Cape Canaveral AF Base tour is fantastic, but they only do it once per day IF there are no launches that day.

Distant picture of what's left of LC-14. The Atlas rocket would be trucked up the ramp from the right and then tilted into position into a large Gantry tower on the left. Compare this with the LC-14 picture previous.

Control bunker at LC-14. Supposedly blast proof in case the Atlas missile were to explode on the pad. Sometimes they did during testing!

Friday, February 10, 2012

50 YA - Tiros 4 Launched to orbit

Tiros Weather Satellite.

FIfty years ago NASA launched the 4th member of the Tiros weather satellites. The launch occurred on February 8th from Cape Canaveral with a Thor-Able rocket blasting off from Launch Complex 17A. I have another source which claims the rocket used was a Thor-Delta configuration. Thor-Deltas were generally launched from LC-17. The Thor-Delta was the forerunner to today's Delta-class rockets.

Thor-Able rocket.

Thor-Delta rocket.

Both rocket configurations are similar. In either case, the Tiros-4 weather satellite was placed into orbit and began sending photos and data back to Earth within 24 hours. The satellite was about 42 inches in diameter, and cylinder-shaped. Two different telephoto cameras were installed, with other sensors and communications systems. The Tiros weather system enabled forecasters to more carefully watch cloud cover, storm systems, and photograph weather events from orbit.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

50 YA - American Atlas problems delay launch

Friendship 7 on Atlas rocket.

Fifty years ago, it was the USA experiencing all sorts of rocket problems. NASA was behind the Russians on launching men into orbit of the Earth, and was eager to send up astronaut John Glenn in the Mercury Capsule, nicknamed "Friendship 7," on top the Atlas rocket. The Atlas had more thrust and fuel than the Redstone, used to launch Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom into sub-orbital flights over the Atlantic.

The launch would have taken place on January 27, but weather played a part in cancelling that flight. Astronaut Glenn had patiently waited for more than five hours strapped in the capsule until word came down that the bad weather would prevent flight controllers from monitoring his liftoff during the first critical few minutes.

Then on January 30, worse news was given to the press and the waiting American public: a fuel leak in the Atlas booster would need repairs. As John Glenn put it: "Sure, I'm disappointed, but this is a complicated business. I don't think we should fly until all elements of the mission are ready. When we have completed all our tests satisfactorily then we'll go." On February 1st, NASA announced that repairs would be completed by February 13, and the flight could be launched then.

John Glenn practices entering Friendship 7, with the help of Gunther Wendt, the famous German rocket scientist-turned-American-rocket-engineer-now-pad leader who led the team of engineers working on the launch pad.

Also on February 1st, the American public began showing their frustration with the delays. Politics were involved in space back in 1962, just like today. Congressman James G. Fulton, who was the top Republican on the House Committee on Science and Astronautic, said "There's no doubt our overall space program is slipping despite the high words and fine praise coming from the White House... if it continues to slip we'll be lucky to get a man on the Moon before 1980."

Remaining positive, on February 3rd Glenn announced to the press that the scheduled rocket flight on February 13th "can only bode success." He was still unaware, of course, of further delays to come.

Meanwhile, on February 4th, the world was quite relieved to see a prediction fail to come to pass. It just so happened that Hindu astrologers had predicted that because of an unusual alignment of five planets and the Sun occurred. According to their prediction, a previously unknown and invisible planetoid named Khentu would also move into alignment and cause Earthly disasters. Of course, nothing happened, and the Indian Prime Minister chided the astrologers and their public believers for such nonsense.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Russian Mechanical Problems Delay Launches

Soyuz manned capsule in orbit in better days.

The Russian Soyuz TMA-04M was discovered through a test to have failed its ability to correctly pressurize. It was originally scheduled to have been the next manned Russian craft to travel to the ISS in March. Now, the Russians will have to delay that mission as they build a replacement. The next launch is now postponed until mid-April and may even reach back into May.

While this event does not impact the number of astronauts that can stay on board the ISS, it does bring up a point made by many space enthusiasts about the end of the shuttle program. As President Obama cancelled the Constellation program before the end of the series of shuttle retirements, many of us predicted there could be trouble relying on the Russians. Of course the first thing that happened was that the Russians took advantage of our weakness and promptly raised the taxi fares by $20 million per seat. Then to add insult to injury the Russians began declaring that perhaps the ISS should be a mostly Russian operation, since NASA had no way to replace astronauts or get supplies to the station. And congressman and pro-US human spaceflight enthusiasts fumed at the embarrassment of watching our government fumble with budgets (it's been over 1000 days since our Senate approved a budget- NASA has had to get by with less than they needed) and leadership.

Then suddenly the Russians began experiencing problems. Last year there were serious worries about accidents that could occur during the Soyuz landings, and then the Russians had to put a stop to all rocket launches while they searched for answers resulting from rocket failures. They then assured us that the problems were fixed.

Progress resupply rocket on pad.

Now we have another series of Russian failures that hold up the program. Not only the Soyuz seems to have problems, but the Proton rockets as well. A Proton-M rocket ready to carry the SES-4 communications satellite has been delayed a second time because of failures with either the avionics or an unspecified problem. Will this result in grounding Progress rockets? The World wants to know.

Phobos-Grunt probe readying for launch.

All of this latest trouble follows on the heels of the Phobos-Grunt disaster. That Russian Mars probe failed to leave Earth orbit and tumbled to a fiery re-entry this month. It was finally reported that before launch, problems with the probe's construction had led to more than a dozen welding repairs while the craft still had fueled tanks! As late as last week, Russian space leaders had even blamed US radar on causing the malfunctions while the craft launched to orbit. Now this week, we have the Russian space circus claiming it must have been cosmic radiation that affected the craft's avionics. At latest report, Russian investigators are blaming the problem on a cheap faulty counterfeit microchip, unable to withstand the rigors of outer space radiation. Some Russian engineers are quietly looking at the probability of internal problems with Russia's space manufacturing.

This causes NASA leaders untold headaches of course, but also deserves an appropriate "I told you so" response from those of us who warned about relying on the Russians for our space transportation.

Miss the shuttle yet?